What Does Checking Your Privilege Mean?


You may have noticed people using the phrase “check your privilege” and wondered, “What does check your privilege mean and how would I do that?”

While it’s a complex topic with many nuances and perspectives, this  post will help answer these critical questions:

  1. What Does Checking Your Privilege Mean?
  2. How To Check Your Privilege on College Campuses?
  3. What are Some Reactions to “Check Your Privilege”?
  4. What are some Next Steps?

What Does Checking Your Privilege Mean?

On a ground level, check your privilege asks us to acknowledge the struggles of other groups, examine the advantages of our own life, and better understand how external forces influence lives and opinions.

What does check your privilege mean to the social justice movement? It means that there are community forces advocating for treating everyone the same under the law, regardless of their race, religion, gender, national origin, etc. – and in the literature on increasing diversity awareness and acceptance in our workforces and communities. According to the University of San Francisco Intercultural Center, privilege is the “unearned access to social power based on membership in a dominant social group.”

As more voices have joined the conversation, additional privileges have been acknowledged including class, religion, gender, physical abilities, and sexual preferences.

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How To Check Your Privilege on College Campuses?

Tal Fortgang published what proved to be a controversial piece in Princeton’s school paper in April of 2014. Within a month, Time Magazine ran a crystallized version of his essay, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege.”

Not unrelated, in their May issue, The Atlantic ran a piece called “Segregation Now,” by Nikole Hannah-Jones, about the creeping return of separate and unequal conditions to Alabama schools sixty years after Brown v. Board.

Also, an unnamed Resident Assistant (RA) in the East Hall of Appalachian State University in North Carolina was met with chagrin and criticism when students returning from Spring Break discovered his new hall bulletin board, decorated with a “Check Your Privilege” display.

The RA had posted fliers from the University of San Francisco Intercultural Center’s Check Your Privilege Campaign, whose stated goals are increasing knowledge and improving beliefs about privilege, heightening awareness, and advocating for others.

By May of 2014, Worldwide Google searches for what does “check your privilege” mean peaked.

How to check your privilege obviously means many different things to many different people. So what were the results of this movement?

Examining the Reactions to “Check Your Privilege”

Writing for The New York Times Magazine, NYU Professor of Philosophy and Law, Kwame Anthony Appiah drew the distinction between the two major tensions that today’s universities must hold in balance – Utility U. and Utopia U.

He writes,

If Utility U. is concerned with value, Utopia U. is concerned with values. The values agenda can involve the content of classes, the nature of campus communities or both. At Utopia U., the aim is to create a safe space, to check your privilege and suspend the prejudices of the larger world, to promote human development and advance moral progress.

Because, as he points out, people don’t think or learn well when they don’t feel safe, when they feel insulted, or perceive countless “micro-aggressions” throughout their day.

Not more than three days after the NYT op-ed appeared, another authority figure at another famous college went viral with his thoughts on the matter. Payton Head, the President of the Missouri Students Association wrote a Facebook post about an ugly experience he had walking through the Mizzou campus that evening.

The University of Missouri student paper, The Maneater, did not link to the post but said “it wasn’t just a rant.” In an interview, Head explained,

“Of course there’s a lot of hurt and pain that’s associated with living in a world that’s not created for you,” he said, “but at the same time, if you’re not able to vocalize that to the people with privilege, who can help change that world, who have the institutional privilege to create change, then there’s no way to see change.”

What’s the Next Step?

At this point, there’s no denying that “checking your privilege” has become a part of the dialog on college campuses. And what started as a movement for positive change, has alienated students and created a divide across college campuses.

But what if there is a way to re-focus the conversation?

How about instead of focusing on the negative aspects of singling out someone or a group of people, we change the conversation to focus on embracing diversity in higher education and creating a safe learning environment for each and every student?

We already know from countless sources like this one that businesses that promote diversity are more successful. So how can your school create a more diverse campus that focuses on inclusion?

To answer this question “what does check your privilege mean” and to figure out how we can refocus on the spirit of the movement, Vector Solutions (formerly Everfi's Campus Prevention Network) invites community members and higher education leaders to lead the change and create a positive, diverse culture on campus.

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Diversity, equity, and inclusion training for college students can be challenging. Vector Solutions presents unique experiences of real people to explore key concepts such as identity, power, privilege, and communication.

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